If you´ve never made the trek to Machu Pichu but have heard about it, you probably assume that it´s a spectacular ruin right near Cuzco (aka. Cusco), Peru. On countless T-shirts, travel agency posters and every other piece of tourism trash you see the two linked together as if the ruins are in the same place. Its actually just a huge misleading media blitz to make travelers visit two tourism destination instead of one (check out CuscoPeru.com, a city tourism site dominated with a picture of Machu Pichu). In fact, they are a nearly three hour train ride apart with plenty of cool places between. Thats like saying "Come visit Stonehenge, London" or "check out the Atlantic Ocean in Paris."
Fortunately, Cuzco is a great city in its own right, with plenty of things to see and do.
The Incas made foundations for their buildings out of stone carefully carved to fit into eachother without any mortar or anything else holding it together. This difficult, pre-iron age ancient technology oddly enough works better than much of what we´ve got today. It resists earthquakes, doesn´t rot or fall apart, is environmentally sustainable, and is sturdy enough to last centuries (at least six already, and counting!).
When the Spanish came they didn´t have much respect for the cultures here but they did know quality building when they saw them. So they tore down most of the Inca buildings, but kept the foundations to build their own on top of. This means, all over this city you can see history in layers.
Having made our way to Cusco, the MacAllen brother were travel weary and were craving seeing another friendly face (the brothers are getting so shaggy at this point, that their faces barely counted). Happily we had a joyful reunion with Andy, the shaggy Australian we met working on a farm in Costa Rica and who all animals adore. He is the one oldest friend we´ve encountered since we left so we had alot of catching up to do. We talked about the infamous card game with Madre MacAllen, building a shit house together and our infamous contests of flatulence. After a while we noticed, in one corner of the room, a lovely German girl named Io that wasn´t fleeing in disgust. Astonished by her smiling tolerance for testosterone we begged her to join us. And, with her, our international team of vigilante illicit tomb raiders (or rather, ruin visitors) was complete.
We first went to the train station, like obedient little brainwashed tourists, because everything you see leads you to believe thats the only way to get to Machu Pichu without paying a fortune for a guided trek along the Inca trail. That´s when we discovered that a one way, 3 hour train ride, would cost us between $38-$109 dollars. That price, in a country where you can get a good three course meal for 50 cents, was the most expensive train I´ve ever come across in all my travels (including Japan!). Locals, however, were allowed to take other trains that we´d get arrested for stepping foot on because of our white skin, for somewhere between $1-5. Peru-Rail and the Peruvian Government, you are racist bastards!
Our fearless troop was underdeterred and after a bit of searching around we came up with an alternate route. We took a bus to Ollantaytambo a cute town far closer to Machu Pichu with an ancient feel, nice market huge mountains, and impressive ruins of its own.
We had heard that if we picked up the train there, it´d be only an obscene $17 each way. Upon arriving to the train station we discovered that that price had doubled but that it didn´t matter anyway because trains weren´t running for a couple days for repairs. We were stymied, from everything we´d been able to find there we only two ways of getting there. One was to hire a guide (for about $220, per person) do do a 4 day hike along the "Inca trail" in to Machu Pichu. And the other is to take the train which followed a river that went all the way down through the sacred valley to Aguascalientes, the REAL town next to Machu Pichu. We pondered it for a while before we stumbled upon the hair-brained scheme of building a boat out of inner tubes and random pieces of lumber and rafting our way there. The river looked relatively calm near us and it went all the way. We started shopping for materials until we discovered that the passable points were Class 3 or 4 river rapids and that others you´d have to be out of your mind to attempt.
So we begrudgingly gave up that idea, and then decided we could walk the 44kms there, following both the river and rail. No one had explicitly said we couldn´t do such a thing but it was pretty emphatically implied. On one side of the river was a national park, including the official network of "Inca Trails." To even enter the park we needed to pay a big fee as well as hire an expensive guide to step foot inside(yet another way Peru screws backpackers who want to go to Machu Pichu). But, when we started to think about it, it seemed odd that all the Incas would only walk to Machu Pichu up and over huge mountains when there was a river valley gently sloping down to it. There had to be, we thought, trails on our side of the river.
Having faith in the Incan people, but no indication of another trail we started preparing for a long hike far from flush toilets and showers. In order to complicate my life my stomach took the opportunity to let me know it didn´t approve of my recent experiments drinking tap water. But, undeterred and with butt cheeks clenched, we set out on our journey.
Although we didn´t really know where we were going, nor what we were doing, the Incas took care of us. Shortly into our trek some friendly locals pointed us to an ancient trail generally following the river but winding up and done hills with stairs hewn out of stone centuries before. It was still used daily by folks who lived nearby but was happily neglected by the police and backpackers on expensive tours.
It took us a day and half to do the hike and we found it to be incredible. We found cool mudbrick houses, a colorful contemporary graveyard and were constantly surrounded by the majestic Andes mountains. When we made it farther out of civilization we walked by, and got to explore alone, at least a dozen Incan ruins. One of which we camped at. It was a truly magical experience to spend a cool silent night with great friends on next door to the stone home of a farmer from at least half a millenium ago.
One of the last towns we past before we made it to the the end of our hike had two trains stopped and what seemed like hundreds of police walking around. It was one of the official entrances to the "Inca Trail" park across the river and near a train tunnel that we feared we´d need to walk through. Since, thus far, no one had specifically told us that we couldn´t hike the way were were going, we decided that it´d be better to keep it that way. So we cut back, and climbed up a hill, and snuck around the town. It took us a while to circumvent and it involved sliding down a cliff, but we finally felt like we´d made it behind enemy lines with only our wits and an ancient civilization as our allies. The trek got cooler and cooler. Well, rather, as we slowly descended from the arid high altitude to a rainforest jungle it got hotter and hotter. Once we got into the jungle we didn´t see nearly as many ruins because they were likely buried or undiscovered. But occasionally we strolled across something truly spectacular.
We ended up hiking on the railroad tracks for the last half of the journey. It was flat, impossible to get lost and afforded some remarkable views. But it was a long hard hike and stepping, with a heavy pack, on the large stones in the track took a toll on our energy and our feet. As great as our hike was, we were elated to make it to the town of Machu Pichu Pueblo (which, elsewhere is called Aguacalientes for no better reason than to confuse tourists, methinks). After dinner we barely had the energy to make it to our hostel and sleep. And we needed all the sleep we could get because the next day we awoke to more adventure. We were almost screwed again by greedy folks preying on visitors, rescued by our Inca allies, saw a wonder of the world and I had a flash of insight that is going to alter the course of my life. But that, my dear readers, is a story for another day...